World’s most expensive cities for expats in 2021 revealed

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(CNN) – Ashgabat in Turkmenistan is the most expensive city in the world for foreign workers, according to this year’s Mercer cost-of-living survey.

The annual report ranks 209 cities based on the comparative cost of spending, including accommodation, transportation, food, and entertainment, with New York City used as a benchmark comparison.

The capital of Turkmenistan, which was number two on last year’s list, is somewhat of an exception in the top 10, which mainly includes business centers like Hong Kong (the most expensive city of the year last and second most expensive of this year), Tokyo (number four for 2021), Zurich (number five for 2021) and Singapore (number seven for 2021).

Turkmenistan’s current financial crisis, which has led to food shortages and hyperinflation, is cited by Mercer as the reason why the cost of living in Ashgabat has increased over the past two years.

Perhaps the biggest change from last year’s Mercer survey is that Beirut has moved from the 45th most expensive city for international workers in 2020 to the third in 2021.

Mercer attributes this development to Lebanon’s economic depression, which was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the explosion at the Port of Beirut in August of last year.

Meanwhile, as the euro gained nearly 11% against the US dollar, European cities were ranked comparatively more expensive than their US counterparts. This led to New York leaving the Mercer top 10 altogether, while Paris went from number 50 in 2020 to number 33 in 2021.

Likewise, the appreciation of the Australian dollar has seen Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne climb up Mercer’s rankings.

When it comes to the cheapest cities for foreign workers, Mercer’s ranking identifies Tbilisi, Georgia (number 207), Lusaka, Zambia (number 208) and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (number 209).

Changing the pace of work

Vince Cordova, Mercer’s Northeast International Mobility Leader, told CNN Travel that this year’s ranking has also been affected by changing business models in the wake of the pandemic.

Between travel restrictions, the widespread adoption of the telework model and the Covid-19 situation varying from country to country, some companies are opting for international distance hiring instead of relocating workers to another country .

“As the types of international missions change, this creates shifts in the demand for certain goods and services and different consumer profiles,” Cordova explains.

Cordova also notes the impact of China’s “rapid but uneven” recovery from Covid-19 on this year’s results.

“It is the only major economy to achieve growth in 2020,” he said, stressing that this has led Chinese cities to move up the rankings at all levels.

Looking ahead, Cordova suggests the US dollar could “make a comeback” over the next year, which could dictate the shape of future rankings.

2021 ranking of the cost of living of cities

1. Ashgabat (Turkmenistan)

2. Hong Kong (China)

3. Beirut (Lebanon)

4. Tokyo (Japan)

5. Zurich (Switzerland)

6. Shanghai (China)

7. Singapore

8. Geneva (Switzerland)

9. Beijing (China)

10. Bern (Switzerland)


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